The process of arriving at The Dabney is unlike getting to any other restaurant in D.C. You would never find it unless you knew what you were looking for, and even then, you might have to help your Uber driver out.
Tucked away in the corner of this turn-of-the-century H-shaped maze called Blagden Alley is chef Jeremiah Langhorne's two month-old restaurant—one of the most ambitious openings to perhaps ever hit the nation's capital. In this nook of the Shaw neighborhood, Langhorne is digging deep into the region's history and farms to create a modern Mid-Atlantic cuisine—a cuisine whose development largely stopped after the Civil War, according to Langhorne.
"We're in our nation's capital. There's a lot of good history here, a lot of good food history, and I want to make sure it's showcased," Langhorne explains, sitting at a table in the Virginia farmhouse-inspired space. A daily-shifting menu around Christmas featured sweet potato rolls with pork belly and watermelon molasses, grilled brassicas over potato purée, swordfish with sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts, and a nod to a Southern love of richness with a biscuit layered with foie gras, a fried egg, apples and maple. ("I definitely have my glutinous Virginia boy side to me," he jokes.)
Photos: Andrew Cebulka
At first blush, the artfully plated dishes at The Dabney could read as an excellent iteration of modern Southern, but the cooking doesn't precisely fall into the Southern camp: Apart from the biscuit, it's slightly lighter, with local ingredients woven into the menu. What sets Mid-Atlantic cuisine apart from Southern cuisine "is the Chesapeake Bay and having the mountains where they are," Langhorne says. An alum of iconic Charleston restaurant McCrady's, Langhorne is arguably trying to do as his mentor, Sean Brock, did, bringing his region's cuisine into the 21st century.
"I always knew I wanted to come back to Virginia and open a restaurant," Langhorne explains in an accent that has just a touch of Southern warmth to it. It's where he grew up and where his family is from: "We've been in Virginia since before Virginia was Virginia," he explains. And, as if to prove it, he opens a well-worn reprint of Housekeeping in Old Virginia, a book of recipes originally published in 1879, to a page that lists contributions from various Virginia women, including a number from his family. The book, which Langhorne keeps tucked in a drawer under his expediting station, has been a guiding force for the restaurant. "I've been a history nut before I ever knew I wanted to cook," he says.
None of the actual "recipes" (which read as short paragraphs of ingredients and loose instructions, as all recipes of that generation do) from the book appear on the menu, but many including a bay sauce (made from a mixture of black walnut leaves, fresh horseradish, onions and spices that's left to ferment) started with an idea in the book. "The goal is not to make a recipe that's 200 years old . . . the goal is to take those ideas as inspiration and continue to keep moving the food of this area forward," he says.
It's a goal that's required ongoing experimentation. Langhorne's kitchen is as much an edible chemistry laboratory as it is a functioning restaurant kitchen. Before opening, he and his team developed a regional pantry of about 150 items ranging from the familiar canned tomatoes and blackberry jam to sorghum and beer vinegars, soy sauce made from oats, bread and butter pickled sunchokes (see the recipe), and items like the bay sauce that Langhorne says no one has likely made in generations.
Using the pantry as a base, Langhorne's cooking combines unexpected flavors like roasted turnips with a sweet and slightly vegetal watermelon molasses and grilled vegetables with rye vinegar. "I look at a lot of things as far as what they do and not what they are . . . something that will add sweetness or something that will add acid . . . it helps you be a lot more creative," he says.
Still, Langhorne's style of cooking comes with unique challenges, like cooking almost everything on an open hearth and timing. "You have to have a lot of patience when you cook like this . . . you have to be willing to sit on it for a year," Langhorne says about a number of items in his pantry. His bay sauce, for instance, is only three months old at the moment and will require another three months until he knows what it will taste like when it's ready.
While Langhorne is focusing on getting dinner out every night, he, more than many chefs, is looking years into the future. His team is already planning for next year's harvest, when the restaurant's basement will turn into a full-blown fermenting, pickling and curing room.
But it's not just about his restaurant; it's about his community and city. It's why he buys local: "I would much rather support the farmers and people in this region, because all that means is that year after year my farmers' market will get better, and my city will get better."